Value Based SEO Strategy

Dec 1st
posted in

One approach to search marketing is to treat the search traffic as a side-effect of a digital marketing strategy. I’m sure Google would love SEOs to think this way, although possibly not when it comes to PPC! Even if you’re taking a more direct, rankings-driven approach, the engagement and relevancy scores that come from delivering what the customer values should serve you well, too.

In this article, we’ll look at a content strategy based on value based marketing. Many of these concepts may be familiar, but bundled together, they provide an alternative search provider model to one based on technical quick fixes and rank. If you want to broaden the value of your SEO offering beyond that first click, and get a few ideas on talking about value, then this post is for you.

In any case, the days of being able to rank well without providing value beyond the click are numbered. Search is becoming more about providing meaning to visitors and less about providing keyword relevance to search engines.

What Is Value Based Marketing?

Value based marketing is customer, as opposed to search engine, centric. In Values Based Marketing For Bottom Line Success, the authors focus on five areas:

  • Discover and quantify your customers' wants and needs
  • Commit to the most important things that will impact your customers
  • Create customer value that is meaningful and understandable
  • Assess how you did at creating true customer value
  • Improve your value package to keep your customers coming back

Customers compare your offer against those of competitors, and divide the benefits by the cost to arrive at value. Marketing determines and communicates that value.

This is the step beyond keyword matching. When we use keyword matching, we’re trying to determine intent. We’re doing a little demographic breakdown. This next step is to find out what the customer values. If we give the customer what they value, they’re more likely to engage and less likely to click back.

What Does The Customer Value?

A key question of marketing is “which customers does this business serve”? Seems like an obvious question, but it can be difficult to answer. Does a gym serve people who want to get fit? Yes, but then all gyms do that, so how would they be differentiated?

Obviously, a gym serves people who live in a certain area. So, if our gym is in Manhattan, our customer becomes “someone who wants to get fit in Manhattan”. Perhaps our gym is upmarket and expensive. So, our customer becomes “people who want to get fit in Manhattan and be pampered and are prepared to pay more for it”. And so on, and so on. They’re really questions and statements about the value proposition as perceived by the customer, and then delivered by the business.

So, value based marketing is about delivering value to a customer. This syncs with Google’s proclaimed goal in search, which is to put users first by delivering results they deem to have value, and not just pages that match a keyword term. Keywords need to be seen in a wider context, and that context is pretty difficult to establish if you’re standing outside the search engine looking in, so thinking in terms of concepts related to the value proposition might be a good way to go.

Value Based SEO Strategy

The common SEO approach, for many years, has started with keywords. It should start with customers and the business.

The first question is “who is the target market” and then ask what they value.

Relate what they value to the business. What is the value proposition of the business? Is it aligned? What would make a customer value this business offering over those of competitors? It might be price. It might be convenience. It’s probably a mix of various things, but be sure to nail down the specific value propositions.

Then think of some customer questions around these value propositions. What would be the likely customer objections to buying this product? What would be points that need clarifying? How does this offer differ from other similar offers? What is better about this product or service? What are the perceived problems in this industry? What are the perceived problems with this product or service? What is difficult or confusing about it? What could go wrong with it? What risks are involved? What aspects have turned off previous customers? What complaints did they make?

Make a list of such questions. These are your article topics.

You can glean this information by either interviewing customers or the business owner. Each of these questions, and accompanying answer, becomes an article topic on your site, although not necessarily in Q&A format. The idea is to create a list of topics as a basis for articles that address specific points, and objections, relating to the value proposition.

For example, buying SEO services is a risk. Customers want to know if the money they spend is going to give them a return. So, a valuable article might be a case study on how the company provided return on spend in the past, and the process by which it will achieve similar results in future. Another example might be a buyer concerned about the reliability of a make of car. A page dedicated to reliability comparisons, and another page outlining the customer care after-sale plan would provide value. Note how these articles aren’t keyword driven, but value driven.

Ever come across a FAQ that isn’t really a FAQ? Dreamed-up questions? They’re frustrating, and of little value if the information doesn’t directly relate to the value we seek. Information should be relevant and specific so when people land on the site, there’s more chance they will perceive value, at least in terms of addressing the questions already on their mind.

Compare this approach with generic copy around a keyword term. A page talking about “SEO” in response to the keyword term “SEO“might closely match a keyword term, so that’s a relevance match, but unless it’s tied into providing a customer the value they seek, it’s probably not of much use. Finding relevance matches is no longer a problem for users. Finding value matches often is. Even if you’re keyword focused, added these articles provides you semantic variation that may capture keyword searches that aren't appearing in keyword tools.

Keyword relevance was a strategy devised at a time when information was less readily available and search engines weren't as powerful. Finding something relevant was more hit and miss that it is today. These days, there’s likely thousands, if not millions, of pages that will meet relevance criteria in terms of keyword matching, so the next step is to meet value criteria. Providing value is less likely to earn a click back and more likely to create engagement than mere on-topic matching.

The Value Chain

Deliver value. Once people perceive value, then we have to deliver it. Marketing, and SEO in particular, used to be about getting people over the threshold. Today, businesses have to work harder to differentiate themselves and a sound way of doing this is to deliver on promises made.

So the value is in the experience. Why do we return to Amazon? It’s likely due to the end-to-end experience in terms of delivering value. Any online e-commerce store can deliver relevance. Where competition is fierce, Google is selective.

In the long term, delivering value should drive down the cost of marketing as the site is more likely to enjoy repeat custom. As Google pushes more and more results beneath the fold, the cost of acquisition is increasing, so we need to treat each click like gold.

Monitor value. Does the firm keep delivering value? To the same level? Because people talk. They talk on Twitter and Facebook and the rest. We want them talking in a good way, but even if they talk in a negative way, it can still useful. Their complaints can be used as topics for articles. They can be used to monitor value, refine the offer and correct problems as they arise. Those social signals, whilst not a guaranteed ranking boost, are still signals. We need to adopt strategies whereby we listen to all the signals, so to better understand our customers, in order to provide more value, and hopefully enjoy a search traffic boost as a welcome side-effect, so long as Google is also trying to determine what users value. .

Not sounding like SEO? Well, it’s not optimizing for search engines, but for people. If Google is to provide value, then it needs to ensure results provide not just relevant, but offer genuine value to end users. Do Google do this? In many cases, not yet, but all their rhetoric and technical changes suggest that providing value is at the ideological heart of what they do. So the search results will most likely, in time, reflect the value people seek, and not just relevance.

In technical terms, this provides some interesting further reading:

Today, signals such as keyword co-occurrence, user behavior, and previous searches do in fact inform context around search queries, which impact the SERP landscape. Note I didn’t say the signals “impact rankings,” even though rank changes can, in some cases, be involved. That’s because there’s a difference. Google can make a change to the SERP landscape to impact 90 percent of queries and not actually cause any noticeable impact on rankings.

The way to get the context right, and get positive user behaviour signals, and align with their previous searches, is to first understand what people value.

Creating an Experience for Your Product

Nov 18th

In a recent post I talked about the benefits of productizing your business model along with some functional ways to achieve productization.

A product, in and of itself is really only 1/2 of what you are selling to your clients. The other 1/2 of the equation is the "experience".

It sounds a bit "fluffy" but in my career as a service provider and in my purchasing history as a consumer the experience matters. I would even go so far as to say that in some very noticeable cases the experience can outweigh the product itself (to some extent anyways).

These halves, the product and the experience, can cut both ways.

Sometimes a product is so good that the experience can be average or even below average and the provider will still make out and sometimes the experience is so fantastic that an otherwise average or above average product is elevated to what can be priced as a premium product or service.

Let's get a few obvious variables out of the way first. It is understood that:

  1. Experience matters more to some people than others
  2. Experience matters more in certain industries than others
  3. The actual product matters more to some
  4. The actual product matters more in some industries

If we stipulate that the 4 scenarios mentioned above are true, which they are, it still doesn't change the basic premise that you are probably leaving revenue and growth on the table if you settle on one side or the other.

While it's true that you can be successful even if your product to experience ratio is like a seesaw heavily weighted in one direction over the other, it is also true that you would probably be more successful if you made both the best each could be.

Defining Where Product Meets Experience

I'll layout a couple of examples here to help illustrate the point:

  • The "Big Four" in the link research tools space; Ahrefs, Link Research Tools, Majestic, and Open Site Explorer
  • The two more well-known "tool/reporting suites" Raven and Moz outside of much more expensive enterprise toolkits

In my experience Ahrefs has been the best combination of product and experience, especially lately. Their dataset continues to grow and recent UI changes have made it even easier to use. Exports are super fast and I’ve had quick and useful interactions with their support staff. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that, from groups of folks I interact with and follow online, Ahrefs continues to pop up more often in conversation than not.

To me, Majestic and Link Research Tools are examples of where the product is really, really strong (copious amounts of data across many segments) but the UI/UX is not quite as good as the others. I realize some of this is subjective but in other comparisons online this seems to be a prevailing theme.

Open Site Explorer has a fantastic UI/UX but the data can be a bit behind the others and getting data out (exporting) is bit more of a chore than point, click, download. It seems like over a period of time OSE has had a rougher road to data and update growth than the other tools I mentioned.

In the case of two of more popular reporting and research suites, Moz and Raven, Raven has really caught up (if not surpassed) Moz in terms of UI/UX. Raven pulls in data from multiple sources, including Moz, and has quite a few more (and easier to get to and cross-reference) features than Moz.

Moz may not be interested in getting into some of the other pieces of the online marketing puzzle that Raven is into but I think it’s still a valid comparison based on the very similar, basic purpose of each tool suite.

Assessing Your Current Position

When assessing or reassessing your products and offerings, a lot of it goes back to targeting the right market.

  • Is the market big enough to warrant investment into a product?
  • How many different segments of a given market do you need to appeal to?
  • Where’s the balance between feature bloat (think Zoho CRM) versus “good enough” functionality with an eye towards an incredible UX (think Highrise CRM)?

If the market isn’t big enough and you have to go outside your initial target, how will that affect the balance between the functionality of your product and the experience for your users, customers, or clients?

If you are providing SEO services your "functionality" might be how easy it is to determine the reports you provide and their relationship(s) to a client's profitability or goals (or both). Your "experience" is likely a combination of things:

  • The graphical presentation of your documents
  • The language used in your reports and other interactions with the client
  • The consistency of your "brand" across the web
  • The consistency of your brand presentation (website, invoices, reports, etc)
  • Client ability to access reports and information quickly without having to ask you for it
  • Consistency of your information delivery (are you always on-time, late, or erratic with due dates, meetings, etc)

When you breakdown what you think is your "product" and "experience" you'll likely find that it is pretty simple to develop a plan to improve both, rather than beating the vague "let's do great things" company line that no one really understands but just nods at.

Example of Experience in Action

In just about every Consumer Reports survey Apple comes out on top for customer satisfaction. Apple, whether you like their products/"culture" or not, creates a fairly reliable, if not expensive, end to end experience. This is doubly true if you live near an Apple store.

If you look at laptop failure rates Apple is generally in the middle of the pack. There are other things that go into the Apple experience (using the OS and such) but part of the reason people are willing to pay that premium is due to their support options and ability to fix bugs fairly quickly.

To tie this into our industry, I think Moz is a good parallel example here. Their design is generally heralded as being quite pleasant and it's pretty easy to use their tools; there isn't a steep learning curve to using most of their products.

I think their product presentation is top notch, even though I generally prefer some of their competitors products. They are pretty active on social media and their support is generally very good.

So, in the case of Moz it's pretty clear that people are willing to pay for less robust data or at least less features and options partly (or wholly) due to their product experience and product presentation.

Redesigning Your Experience

You might already have some of these but it's worthwhile to revisit a very basic style guide (excluding audience development):

  • Consistent logo and colors
  • Fonts
  • Vocabulary and Language Style (the tone of your brand, is it My Brand or MyBrand or myBrand, etc)

Some Additional Resources

Here are some visual/text-based resources that I have found helpful during my own redefining process:

These are some of the tools you might want to use to help in this process:

  • Running copy through Word for readability Scores- Office 2013
  • A Windows tool that can help improve your writing- Stylewriter
  • A Mac tool to help with graphics and charts- Omnigraffle
  • A Windows tool to help with charts and graphics- SmartDraw
  • A cloud-based presentation tool that helps the less artistically inclined (like me)- Prezi
  • Online proposal software- Proposable
  • A text expander for Mac, comes in handy with consistent "messaging"- TextExpander
  • Windows alternative that syncs with TextExpander- Breevy

Historical Revisionism

Nov 1st
posted in

A stopped clock is right two times a day.

There’s some amusing historical revisionism going on in SEO punditry world right now, which got me thinking about the history of SEO. I’d like to talk about some common themes of this historical revision, which goes along the lines of “what I predicted all those years ago came true - what a visionary I am! ." No naming names, as I don't meant this to be anything personal - as the same theme has popped up in a number of places - just making some observations :)

See if you agree….

Divided We Fall

The SEO world has never been united. There are no industry standards and qualifications like you’d find in the professions, such as being a doctor, or lawyer or a builder. If you say you’re an SEO, then you’re an SEO.

Part of the reason for the lack of industry standard is that the search engines never came to the party. Sure, they talked at conferences, and still do. They offered webmasters helpful guidelines. They participated in search engine discussion forums. But this was mainly to do with risk management. Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.

In all these years, you won’t find one example of a representative from a major search engine saying “Hey, let’s all get together and form an SEO standard. It will help promote and legitimize the industry!”.

No, it has always been decrees from on high. “Don’t do this, don’t do that, and here are some things we’d like you to do”. Webmasters don’t get a say in it. They either do what the search engines say, or they go against them, but make no mistake, there was never any partnership, and the search engines didn’t seek one.

This didn’t stop some SEOs seeing it as a form of quasi-partnership, however.

Hey Partner

Some SEOs chose to align themselves with search engines and do their bidding. If the search engine reps said “do this”, they did it. If the search engines said “don’t do this”, they’d wrap themselves up in convoluted rhetorical knots pretending not to do it. This still goes on, of course.

In the early 2000’s, it turned, curiously, into a question of morality. There was “Ethical SEO”, although quite what it had to do with ethics remains unclear. Really, it was another way of saying “someone who follows the SEO guidelines”, presuming that whatever the search engines decree must be ethical, objectively good and have nothing to do self-interest. It’s strange how people kid themselves, sometimes.

What was even funnier was the search engine guidelines were kept deliberately vague and open to interpretation, which, of course, led to a lot of heated debate. Some people were “good” and some people were “bad”, even though the distinction was never clear. Sometimes it came down to where on the page someone puts a link. Or how many times someone repeats a keyword. And in what color.

It got funnier still when the search engines moved the goal posts, as they are prone to do. What was previously good - using ten keywords per page - suddenly became the height of evil, but using three was “good” and so all the arguments about who was good and who wasn’t could start afresh. It was the pot calling the kettle black, and I’m sure the search engines delighted in having the enemy warring amongst themselves over such trivial concerns. As far as the search engines were concerned, none of them were desirable, unless they became paying customers, or led paying customers to their door. Then there was all that curious Google+ business.

It's hard to keep up, sometimes.

Playing By The Rules

There’s nothing wrong with playing by the rules. It would have been nice to think there was a partnership, and so long as you followed the guidelines, high rankings would naturally follow, the bad actors would be relegated, and everyone would be happy.

But this has always been a fiction. A distortion of the environment SEOs were actually operating in.

Jason Calacanis, never one to miss an opportunity for controversy, fired some heat seekers at Google during his WebmasterWorld keynote address recently…..

Calacanis proceeded to describe Cutts and Google in terms like, “liar,” “evil,” and “a bad partner.” He cautioned the PubCon audience to not trust Google, and said they cooperate with partners until they learn the business and find a way to pick off the profits for themselves. The rant lasted a good five minutes….

He accused Google of doing many of the things SEOs are familiar with, like making abrupt algorithm changes without warning. They don’t consult, they just do it, and if people’s businesses get trashed as a result, then that’s just too bad. Now, if that’s a sting for someone who is already reasonably wealthy and successful like Calacanis, just imagine what it feels like for the much smaller web players who are just trying to make a living.

The search business is not a pleasant environment where all players have an input, and then standards, terms and play are generally agreed upon. It’s war. It’s characterized by a massive imbalance of power and wealth, and one party will use it to crush those who it determines stands in its way.

Of course, the ever pleasant Matt Cutts informs us it’s all about the users, and that’s a fair enough spin of the matter, too. There was, and is, a lot of junk in the SERPs, and Mahalo was not a partner of Google, so any expectation they’d have a say in what Google does is unfounded.

The take-away is that Google will set rules that work for Google, and if they happen to work for the webmaster community too, well that’s good, but only a fool would rely on it. Google care about their bottom line and their projects, not ours. If someone goes out of business due to Google’s behaviour, then so be it. Personally, I think the big technology companies do have a responsibility beyond themselves to society, because the amount of power they are now centralising means they’re not just any old company anymore, but great vortexes that can distort entire markets. For more on this idea, and where it’s all going, check out my review of “Who Owns The Future” by Jaron Lanier.

So, if you see SEO as a matter of playing by their rules, then fine, but keep in mind "those who can give you everything can also take everything away". Those rules weren't designed for your benefit.

Opportunity Cost

There was a massive opportunity cost by following so called ethical SEO during the 2000s.

For a long time, it was relatively easily to get high rankings by being grey. And if you got torched, you probably had many other sites with different link patterns good to go. This was against the webmaster guidelines, but given marketing could be characterized as war, one does not let the enemy define ones tactics. Some SEOs made millions doing it. Meanwhile, a lot of content-driven sites disappeared. That was, perhaps, my own "a stopped clock is right two times a day" moment. It's not like I'm going to point you to all the stuff I've been wrong about, now is it :)

These days, a lot of SEO is about content and how that content is marketed, but more specifically it’s about the stature of the site on which that content appears. That’s the bit some pundits tend to gloss over. You can have great content, but that’s no guarantee of anything. You will likely remain invisible. However, put that exact same content on a Fortune 500 site, and that content will likely prosper. Ah, the rich get richer.

So, we can say SEO is about content, but that’s only half the picture. If you’re a small player, the content needs to appear in the right place, be very tightly targeted to your audiences needs so they don’t click back, and it should be pushed through various media channels.

Content, even from many of these "ethical SEOs", used to be created for search engines in the hope of netting as many visitors as possible. These days, it’s probably a better strategy to get inside the audience's heads and target it to their specific needs, as opposed to a keyword, then get that content out to wherever your audience happens to be. Unless, of course, you’re Fortune 500 or otherwise well connected, in which case you can just publish whatever you like and it will probably do well.

Fair? Not really, but no one ever said this game was fair.

Whatever Next?

Do I know what’s going to happen next? In ten years time? Nope. I could make a few guesses, and like many other pundits, some guesses will prove right, and some will be wrong, but that’s the nature of the future. It will soon make fools of us all.

Having said that, will you take a punt and tell us what you think will be the future of SEO? Does it have one? What will look like? If you’re right, then you can point back here in a few years time and say “Look, I told you so!”.

If you’re wrong, well, there’s always historical revisionism :)

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Optimizing The SEO Model

Oct 29th
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SEO has always been focused on acquisition.

The marketing strategy, based on high rankings against keyword terms, is about gaining a steady flow of new visitors. If a site ranks better than competing sites, this steady stream of new visitors will advantage the top sites to the disadvantage of those sites beneath it.

The selling point of SEO is a strong one. The client gets a constant flow of new visitors and enjoys competitive advantage, just so long as they maintain rank.

A close partner of SEO is PPC. Like SEO, PPC delivers a stream of new visitors, and if you bid well, and have relevant advertisements, then you enjoy a competitive advantage. Unlike PPC, SEO does not cost per click, or, to be more accurate, it should cost a lot less per click once the SEOs fees are taken into account, so SEO has enjoyed a stronger selling point. Also, the organic search results typically have a higher level of trust from search engine users.

91% prefer using natural search results when looking to buy a product or service online".[Source: Tamar Search Attitudes Report, Tamar, July 2010]

Rain On The Parade

Either by coincidence or design, Google’s algorithm shifts have made SEO less of a sure proposition.

If you rank well, the upside is still there, but because the result is less certain than it used to be, and the work more involved than ever, the risk, and costs in general, have increased. The more risky SEO becomes in terms of getting results, the more Adwords looks attractive, as at least results are assured, so long as spend is sufficient.

Adwords is a brilliant system. For Google. It’s also a brilliant system for those advertisers who can find a niche that doesn’t suffer high levels of competition. The trouble is competition levels are typically high.

Because competition is high, and Adwords is an auction model, bid prices must rise. As bid prices rise, only those companies that can achieve ROI at high costs per click will be left bidding. The higher their ROI, the higher the bid prices can conceivably go. Their competitors, if they are to keep up, will do likewise.

So, the PPC advertiser focused on customer acquisition as a means of growing the company will be passing more and more of their profits to Google in the form of higher and higher click prices. If a company wants to grow by customer acquisition, via the search channel, then they’ll face higher and higher costs. It can be difficult to maintain ROI via PCC over time, which is why SEO is appealing. It’s little wonder Google has their guns pointed at SEO.

A fundamental problem with Adwords, and SEO in general, is that basing marketing success around customer acquisition alone is a poor long term strategy.

More on that point soon….

White-Hat SEO Is Dead

It’s surprising a term such as “white hat SEO” was ever taken seriously.

Any attempt to game a search engine’s algorithm, as far as the search engine is concerned, is going to be frowned upon by the search engine. What is gaming if it’s not reverse engineering the search engines ranking criteria and looking to gain a higher rank than a site would otherwise merit? Acquiring links, writing keyword-focused articles, for the purpose of gaining a higher rank in a search engine is an attempt at rank manipulation. The only thing that varies is the degree.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as far as marketers are concerned.

The search marketing industry line has been that so long as you avoided “bad behaviour”, your site stood a high chance of ranking well. Ask people for links. Find keywords with traffic. Publish pages focused on those topics. There used to more certainty of outcome.

If the outcome is not assured, then so long as a site is crawlable, why would you need an SEO? You just need to publish and see where Google ranks you. Unless the SEO is manipulating rank, then where is the value proposition over and above simply publishing crawlable content? Really, SEO is a polite way of saying “gaming the system”.

Those who let themselves be defined by Google can now be seen scrambling to redefine themselves. “Inbound marketers” is one term being used a lot. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, although you’d be hard pressed to call it Search Engine Optimization. It’s PR. It’s marketing. It’s content production. The side effect of such activity might be a high ranking in the search engines (wink, wink). It’s like Fight Club. The first rule of Fight Club is…...

A few years back, we predicted that the last SEOs standing would be blackhat, and that’s turned out to be true. The term SEO has been successfully co-opted and marginalized. You can still successfully game the system with disposable domains, by aggressively targeting keywords, and buying lot of links and/or building link networks, but there’s no way that’s compliant with Google’s definitions of acceptable use. It would be very difficult to sell that to a client without full disclosure. Even with full disclosure, I’m sure it’s a hard sell.

But I digress….

Optimization In The New Environment

The blackhats will continue on as usual. They never took direction from search engines, anyway.

Many SEOs are looking to blend a number of initiatives together to take the emphasis off search. Some call it inbound. In practice, it blends marketing, content production and PR. It's a lot less about algo hacking.

For it to work well, and to get great results in search, the SEO model needs to be turned on its head. It’s still about getting people to a site, but because the cost of getting people to a site has increased, every visitor must count. For this channel to maintain value, then more focus will go on what happens after the click.

If the offer is not right, and the path to that offer isn’t right, then it’s like having people turn up for a concert when the band hasn’t rehearsed. At the point the audience turns up, they must deliver what the audience wants, or the audience isn’t coming back. The bands popularity will quickly fade.

This didn’t really matter too much in the past when it was relatively cheap to position in the SERPs. If you received a lot of slightly off-topic traffic, big deal, it’s not like it cost anything. Or much. These days, because it’s growing ever more costly to position, we’re increasingly challenged by the “growth by acquisition” problem.

Consider optimizing in two areas, if you haven’t already.

1. Offer Optimization

We know that if searchers don’t find what they what, they click back. The click back presents two problems. One, you just wasted time and money getting that visitor to your site. Secondly, it’s likely that Google is measuring click-backs in order to help determine relevancy.

How do you know if your offer is relevant to users?

The time-tested way is to examine a couple of the 4ps. Product, price, position, and place. Place doesn’t matter so much, as we’re talking about the internet, although if you’ve got some local-centric product or service, then it’s a good idea to focus on it. Promotion is what SEOs do. They get people over the threshold.

However, two areas worth paying attention to are product and price. In order to optimize product, we need to ask some fundamental questions:

  • Does the customer want this product or service?
  • What needs does it satisfy? Is this obvious within a few seconds of viewing the page?
  • What features does it have to meet these needs? Are these explained?
  • Are there any features you've missed out? Have you explained all the features that meet the need?
  • Are you including costly features that the customer won't actually use?
  • How and where will the customer use it?
  • What does it look like? How will customers experience it?
  • What size(s), color(s) should it be?
  • What is it to be called?
  • How is it branded?
  • How is it differentiated versus your competitors?
  • What is the most it can cost to provide, and still be sold sufficiently profitably?

SEOs are only going to have so much control over these aspects, especially if they’re working for a client. However, it still pays to ask these questions, regardless. If the client can’t answer them, then you may be dealing with a client who has no strategic advantage over competitors. They are likely running a me-too site. Such sites are difficult to position from scratch.

Even older sites that were at one point highly differentiated have slid into an unprofitable me too status as large sites like Amazon & eBay offer a catalog which grows deeper by the day.

Unless you're pretty aggressive, taking on me-too sites will make your life difficult in terms of SEO, so thinking about strategic advantage can be a good way to screen clients. If they have no underlying business advantage, ask yourself if you really want to be doing SEO for these people?

In terms of price:

  • What is the value of the product or service to the buyer?
  • Are there established price points for products or services in this area?
  • Is the customer price sensitive? Will a small decrease in price gain you extra market share? Or will a small increase be indiscernible, and so gain you extra profit margin?
  • What discounts should be offered to trade customers, or to other specific segments of your market?
  • How will your price compare with your competitors?

Again, even if you have little or no control over these aspects, then it still pays to ask the questions. You're looking for underlying business advantage that you can leverage.

Once we’ve optimized the offer, we then look at conversion.

2. Conversion Optimization

There’s the obvious conversion most search marketers know about. People arrive at a landing page. Some people buy what’s on offer, and some leave. So, total conversions/number of views x 100 equals the conversion rate.

However, when it comes to SEO, it’s not just about the conversion rate of a landing page. Unlike PPC, you don’t have precise control over the entry page. So, optimizing for conversion is about looking at every single page on which people enter your site, and optimizing each page as if it were an entry point.

What do you want people to do when they land on your page?

Have a desired action in mind for every page. It might be a sign-up. It might be to encourage a bookmark. It might be to buy something. It might be to tweet. Whatever it is, we need to make the terms of engagement, for the visitor, clear for each page - with a big, yellow highlight on the term “engagement”! Remember, Google are likely looking at bounce-back rates. So, there is a conversion rate for every single page on your site, and they’re likely all different.

Think about the shopping cart process. Is a buyer, particularly a mobile buyer, going to wade through multiple forms? Or could the sale be made in as few clicks as possible? Would integrating Paypal or Amazon payments lift your conversion rates? What’s your site speed like? The faster, the better, obviously. A lot of conversion is about streamlining things - from processes, to navigation to site speed.

At this point, a lot of people will be wondering how to measure and quantify all this. How to track track conversion funnels across a big site. It’s true, it’s difficult. It many cases, it’s pretty much impossible to get adequate sample sizes.

However, that’s not a good reason to avoid conversion optimization. You can measure it in broad terms, and get more incremental as time goes on. A change across pages, a change in paths, can lead to small changes on those pages and paths, even changes that are difficult to spot, but there is sufficient evidence that companies who employ conversion optimization can enjoy significant gains, especially if they haven't focused on these areas in the past.

While you could quantify every step of the way, and some companies certainly do, there’s probably a lot of easy wins that can be gained merely by following these two general concepts - optimizing the offer and then optimizing (streamlining) the pages and paths that lead to that offer. If something is obscure, make it obvious. If you want the visitor to do something, make sure the desired action is writ-large. If something is slow, make it faster.

Do it across every offer, page and path in your site and watch the results.

How To Win In Local Internet Marketing

Oct 15th

Local Ants Logo.

Once a training ground for novice SEOs, local search has evolved into a complex, unpredictable  ecosystem dominated by Google. Corporations and mom-and-pops shops alike are fighting for their place under the Sun. It's everybody's job to make best out of local Internet marketing because its importance will continue to grow.

This guide is geared towards helping you deepen your understanding of the local search ecosystem, as well as local Internet marketing in general.

I hope that, after you finish reading this guide, you will be able to make sense of local Internet marketing, use it to grow your business or help your clients do the same.

Objectives, Goals & Measurements Are Crucial

Websites exist to accomplish objectives. Regardless of company size, business models and market, your website needs to bring you closer to accomplishing one or more business objectives. These could be:

  1. Customer Acquisition
  2. Lead Generation
  3. Branding
  4. Lowering sales resistance
  5. etc.

Although not exciting, this is a crucial step in building a local Internet strategy. It will determine the way you set your goals, largely shape the functionality of your website, guide you in deciding what your budget should be and so on.

Getting Specific With Measurement

Objectives are too broad to work with. They exist on a higher level and are something company executives/leadership need to set.

This is why we need specific goals, KPIs and targets. Without getting into too many details, goals could be defined as specific strategies geared towards accomplishing an objective.

For example, if your objective is to “grow your law firm,” a good goal derived from that would be to “generate client inquiries”. Another one would be to use the website to get client referrals.

When you have all this defined, you need to set KPIs. They are simply metrics that help you understand how are you doing against your objectives.  For this imaginary law firm, a good KPI would be the number of potential client leads. After you set targets for your KPIs, you have completed your measurement framework. To learn more about measurement models, you can read this post by Avinash Kaushik.
These will be the numbers that you or your client should care about on a day to day basis.

Lifetime Customer Value And Cost Of Customer Acquisition

Regardless of size, every local business needs to know what is their average lifetime customer value and the cost of customer acquisition.

You need to know these numbers so you can set your marketing budget and be aware if you are on the path of going out of business despite acquiring lots of customers.

Lifetime customer value (LTV) is revenue you expect from a single customer during the lifetime of your business. If you are having trouble calculating this number for your or client's business, use this neat calculator made by Harvard Business School.

Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) is the amount of money you spent to acquire a single customer. The formula is simple. Divide the sum of total costs of sales, marketing, your overhead, with the number of customers you acquired in any given period.

LTV & CAC are the magic numbers.

You can use them to sell Internet marketing services, as well as to demonstrate the value of investing heavily in Internet marketing.

Understanding and using these metrics will put you and your clients ahead of most competitors.

Stop - It's Budget Time

Now when you have your business objectives, customer acquisition costs and other KPIs defined, and their targets set, it's time to talk budgets. Budgets will determine what kind of local Internet marketing campaign you can run and how far it can essentially go.

Most companies don't have a separate Internet marketing budget. It's usually just a part of their marketing budget which can be anywhere from 2% to 20% of sales depending on a lot of factors including, but not limited to:

  1. Business objectives
  2. Company size
  3. Profit margins
  4. Industry
  5. etc.

What does this mean to you?

If you are selling services, you will need to have as much of this data as possible.

Planning And Executing Your Campaign

Now when you know what business objectives your local Internet marketing campaign has to accomplish, your targets, and your budget - you can start developing a campaign. It's easiest to think of this process if we break our campaign planning into small, but meaningful phases:

  1. laying the groundwork,
  2. building a website,
  3. taking care of your data in the local search ecosystem,
  4. citation building,
  5. creating a great website,
  6. building links,
  7. setting up a review management system,
  8. expanding on non-organic search channels
  9. and taking care of web analytics.

Laying The Groundwork

Local search is about data. It's about aggregation and distribution of data across different platforms and technologies. It's also about accuracy and consistency.

This is the reason why you need to start with a NAP audit.

NAP stands for name, address and phone number. It's the anchor business data and should remain accurate, consistent and up to date everywhere. In order to make it consistent, you first need to identify inaccurate data.

This is easier than it sounds.

You can use Yext.com or Getlisted.org to easily and quickly check your data accuracy and consistency in the local search eco system.

Start With Data Aggregators

Data aggregators or compilers are companies that build and maintain large databases of business data. In the US, the ones you should keep an eye on are Neustar/Localeze , Infogroup (former InfoUSA) and Axciom.

Why are data aggregators important?
They are upstream data providers. This means that they provide baseline and sometimes enhanced data to search engines (including Google), local and industry directories. If your data is wrong in one of their databases, it will be wrong all over the place.

Usually, your business data goes bad for one or more of these reasons:

  1. You changed your phone number;
  2. You moved to another location;
  3. Used lots of tracking numbers
  4. Made lots of IYP advertising deals where you wanted to target multiple towns/cities
  5.  etc.

If you or your client have a data inconsistency problem, the fix will start with the aggregators:

Before you embark on a data correction campaign, have in mind that data aggregators take their data seriously. You will need to have access to the phone number on the listing you are trying to claim and verify, an email on the domain of the site associated with the business, and sometimes even scans of official documents.

Remember - after you fix your data inaccuracies with the aggregators, it's still a smart idea to claim and verify listings in major IYPs as data moves slowly from upstream data providers to
numerous local search platforms your business is listed in.

Building Citations Is Important

Simply put, citations are mentions of your business's name, address and phone number (full citation) or name and phone or address (partial citation).

Just like links in “general” organic search, citations are used to determine the relative importance or prominence of your business listing. If Google notices an abundance of consistent citations, it makes them think that your business is legitimate and important and you get rewarded with higher search visibility.

The more citations your business has, the more important it will be in Google's eyes. Oh, there is also a little matter of citation quality as not all citations are created equal. There are also different types of citations besides full and partial.

Depending on the source, citations can come from:

  1. your website;
  2. IYPs like YellowPages.com;
  3. local business directories like Maine.com;
  4. industry websites like ThomasNet.com;
  5. event websites like Events.com;
  6. etc.

We could group citations by how structured they are. This means that a citation on YellowBook.com is structured, but a mention on your uncle's blog is not. Google prefers the first type. The bulk of your citation building will be covered by simply making sure that your data in major data aggregators is accurate and up-to-date. However, there's more to citations than that.

What Makes Citations Strong?

Conventional wisdom tells us that citation strength depends mostly on the algorithmic trust that Google has in the source of the your citation. For example, if you are a manufacturer of industrial coatings, a mention on ThomasNet.com would help you significantly more than a mention on a blog from some guy that has visited your facility once.

You also want your citations to be structured, relevant and to have a link to your website for maximum benefit.

How To Build Citations?

You already started by claiming and verifying your listings with major data aggregators. Since you are very serious about local search, you will make sure to claim and verify listings with major IYPs, too.

Start with the most important ones:

  1. Yellowpages.com;
  2. Yelp.com;
  3. local.yahoo.com;
  4. SuperPages.com;
  5. Citysearch.com;
  6. Insiderpages.com;
  7. Manta.com;
  8. Yellowbook.com;
  9. Yellowbot.com;
  10. Local.com;
  11. dexknows.com;
  12. MerchantCircle.com;
  13. Hotfrog.com;
  14. Mojopages.com;
  15. Foursquare.com;
  16. etc.

You shouldn't forget business and industry associations such as bbb.org or your local chamber of commerce. Here's where you can find your local chamber of commerce.

Industry Directories Are An Excellent Source Of Citations

Industry directories such as Avvo.com for lawyers or ThomasNet.com for manufacturers are not just an excelent source of citations, but are great for your organic search visibility in the Penguin Apocalipse.

How do you find those ?

You can use a couple of tools:

Want even more citations?

Then pay attention to daily deal and event sites. Don't forget charity websites either. If you are one of those people that are obsessed with how everything about citations works, I recommend this (the one and only) book/guide about citations by Nyagoslav Zhekov.

Make Your Website Great

While it's possible to achieve some success using just Google Places and other platforms to market a local business, it's not possible to capture all the Web has to offer.

Your website is the only web property you will fully control. You have the freedom to track and measure anything you want, and the freedom to use your website to accomplish any business objective.

Marry Keyword And Market Research

There's nothing more tragic nor costly than targeting the wrong keywords and trying to appeal to demographics that don't need your services/products.

To run a successful local Internet marketing campaign, you cannot just rely on quantitative data (keywords), you need to conduct qualitative market research. This is very important as it will reduce your risks, as well as acquisition costs if done right.

Let's start with keyword research.

Getting local keyword data has always been a challenge. Google's recent decision to withhold organic keyword data hasn't made it any easier. However, Google itself has provided us with tools to get relatively reliable keyword data for any local search campaign.

Coupled with data from SEOBook Keyword Tool, Ubersuggest, and Bing's Keyword Tool, you will have plenty of data to work with.

Of course, you shouldn't forsake the market research of the equation.

You and/or your client can survey their customers to discover how exactly they describe your business, your services/products or your geographic area. For example, you'll learn if there are any geographical nuances that you should be aware of, such as:

  1. DFW (Dallas/Fort Worth)
  2. PDX (Portland)
  3. OBX (Outer Banks)

Use this data against keyword research tools. If you're running AdWords, you can get an accurate idea of search volumes. To do that, click the Campaign tab, followed by the Keywords tab, then Details and then Search Terms. This data can be downloaded. The video below shows how you can get accurate search volume data if running AdWords.

Keep in mind that the quality of data using this method depends on your use of keyword matching options. This practically means that if you want to get exact match search volumes for a certain number of keywords, you have to make sure to have those keywords set as exact match.

If you're not running AdWords, Google gives you a chance to get a good representation of your local search market using the Keyword Planning Tool as described in this post.

Content And Site Architecture

Largely, your content will depend on your business objectives, brand and the results of your keyword research. The time of local brochure type sites has long passed, at least for businesses that are serious about local Internet marketing.

Local websites are no different from corporate websites when it comes to technical aspects of SEO. Performance and crawlability are very important, as well as proper optimization of titles, headings, body text etc.

However, unlike corporate websites, local sites will have more benefit from:

  1. “localization” of testimonials - it's not only important to get testimonials, but it's crucial to make sure that your visitors know where those testimonials came from.
  2. “localization” of galleries, as well as “before and after” photos - similar to testimonials, you can leverage social proof the most if your website visitors can see how your services/products helped their neighbours.
  3. location pages - pages about a specific city/town where you or your client have an office or service area. Before you go on a rampage creating hundreds of these pages, don't forget that they need to add value to the users, and not just be copy/pasted from Wikipedia. The way to add value is to make them completely unique and useful to your visitors. For example, location pages can show the specific directions to one of your offices or store-fronts. You don't have the “big brand luxury”  of ranking local pages that have virtually all of their content behind a paid wall. 

  1. local blogging - use your blog to connect with local news organizations, charities and industry associations, as well as local bloggers. In addition, blog about your industry; this way, you will get the best of both worlds.
  2. adopting structured data - using schema markup, you can increase click-through rates from the SERPs and get a few other SEO benefits. You can use the Schema Creator to save time.
  3. adopting “mobile” - everyone knows that local search is increasingly mobile. Mobile websites are not a luxury but a necessity Luckily for you or your clients you don't have to invest a lot of resources in developing a mobile site. You can use tools such as dudamobile.com or bmobilized.com to create a fully functional mobile website in hours.

Link Building For Brick And Mortar Businesses

Links are still important. They are still a foundation of high organic search visibility. They still demand your resources.

But a lot has changed - since Penguin. Building links has become a delicate endeavor even for local websites. But there is a way to triumph, all you need to do is change how you view local link building.

See link building as marketing campaigns that have links as a by-product.

What does that mean? It means that your are promoting your business as if Google doesn't exist. Link and citation building overlap to a certain extent. They do so in a way that makes good links great citations, especially if they're structured.

Join Business Associations

BBB.org has an enormus amount of algorithmic trust. It's also an excellent citation. As a bonus - displaying the BBB badge prominently on your website you will likely receive a boost in conversion rates. Similar is true with your local chamber of commerce. Would you join those if Google was not around?

You probably would.

Join Industry Associations

Every industry has associations you or your client can join. You will get similar benefits to ones one can expect from BBB. However, being a member of  trade associations will add an additional layer of value to your business in form of education or certifications.

Charity work

Every business should give back.  Sometimes you will get a link sometimes you will not but you will always benefit from this type of community involvement.

Industry websites

There are plenty of industry websites and and directories in  almost every industry. Sometimes these websites can refer significant traffic to you but they almost always make for a good link and a solid citation.

Organize Events

Events are good for business. If you organize them you should make sure that it's reflected on the web. There are plenty of websites you can submit your event to. Google is not likely  to start considering organizing offline events spam any time soon.

Find Local Directories

Every state has a few good ones. It' likely that your town has an  online business directory you can join. These types of links can make good citations too. They are usually easy to acquire.

Local Blogs

It pays to a friend of your “local blogosphere”.  Try to include local bloggers in your community involvement, offer to contribute content or offer giveaways.

Truly Integrate Link Building Into Your Marketing Operations

Whenever possible, make sure your vendors link to you:

  1. If you're offering discounts to any organization, make sure it's reflected on their website.
  2. If you're attending an industry show or an event, give a testimonial and get a link.
  3. If you get press, remind a report to link to your website.

Review Management

In local search, customer reviews are bigger than life. Consumers trust online reviews as much as personal recommendations while majority (52%) says that positive online reviews make them more likely to choose a local business. Influence reviews have on your local business go well beyond social proof. Good reviews can boost your local search visibility, while bad reviews can destroy your business.

Reviews - The Big Picture

Every organization that strives to get better at what it does should use consumer reviews to improve its business operations. Customer reviews should be treated as one of the most valuable pieces of qualitative data. You should be surveying your customers daily and use their feedback to improve your services, products, customer service etc..

This holds true for corporations, as well as mom and pops shops. It's not complicated to ask your customers about specific aspects of their experience with your business and record their answers. It's not expensive, either.

The benefits of taking reviews seriously are enormous:

  1. More search visibility;
  2. Less potential for online reputation management issues;
  3. Increased Credibility;

 What can you do to win at review management?

Since you need to get high rating positive reviews on different websites in a way that doesn't break any guidelines and keeps you out of jail, your best bet would be to use reviews as a customer service survey tools.

This means that you should seek customer feedback systematically in order to improve your or your client's business. You can ask your most ecstatic customers to share their experiences with your services/products on major local search platforms. Remember that you cannot provide any type of incentive for this behavior.

To save time, you can use a tool such as GetfiveStarts.com. This tool will do everything described above.

Think Beyond Organic Search

Internet marketers tend to be blindly focused on organic search. It's understandable - organic traffic is relatively cheap (in most markets) and seemingly unlimited.

It's also a mistake.

Organic search channel is getting increasingly more unstable. And with that, more expensive to acquire. Since you're aware of your customer acquisition cost and have a measurement framework, it's easy to know how affordable traffic from other sources is for your business.

Paid Search Traffic

Paid search advertising works, especially if you did a good job gearing your site for conversion. You shouldn't leave your PPC budget to Google, though. Bing/Yahoo! are a more affordable source of paid traffic with similar conversion rates.

If you're planning to run a local paid campaign, don't forget to:

  1. target geographically;
  2. use negative keywords and
  3. be fanatical about acquisition cost.

You can also read this post by PPC Hero on what you should keep in mind when running local search advertising campaigns. You can also check out this post on Search Engine Land about managing and measuring local PPC campaigns.

Internet Yellow Pages (IYPs) Sites

Sites like YellowPages.com or SuperPages.com don't have the traffic Google or even Bing get, but they do have a significant amount of traffic. They also have traffic that's at the very end of the buying cycle. This is the reason one should be serious about IYPs.

What does that mean?

It means that you should have most of the big IYP listings claimed, verified and optimized to the best of your ability. So use every element of your listing to sell your products/services. In a lot of markets, it's wise to explore advertising opportunities, as well.

If you want to take an extra step, or simply lack the time, you can sign up with a service such as Yext.com and control the major IYP listings from a single dashboard.

Keep in mind, though, that Yext.com doesn't come for free, and you will have to pay a few hundreds dollars for a year of service.

Another avenue to take would be to outsource this process. In this scenario, you will most likely pay a one-time fee for verification and optimization of a predetermined number of listings. However, if you would like to change some of your business information somewhere down the road (such as name and phone number), you will have to go through this process from the beginning.

Social Media

These days, social media means a lot of things to a lot of different people. Local businesses should use social media platforms to connect with customers that love them. Empowering these customers and giving them an incentive to recommend you to their family and friends.

You should automate as much of your social media efforts as possible. You can use tools like HooteSuite or SocialOomph.

Always try to add value in your interactions and never spam your follower base.

Classified Sites

It's amazing how many businesses miss to build their presence on classified sites like Craigslist.org. Even though Craigslist audience the type of audience that is always on the lookout for a great deal, the buying intent is very strong.

If you'd like to get the most out of Craigslist and other classified sites, remember to make your ads count. You need:

  1. persuasive copy;
  2. targeted ads;
  3. special deals;
  4. etc.

Other sources of non-search traffic you should explore are local newspaper advertising, ads on big industry websites, local blogs and others.

Tracking And Web Analytics

If there's only one thing local businesses should care about, it's tracking. As we established in the beginning of this guide, everyone needs to know how much they can afford to spend in order to acquire a customer.

Proper tracking ensures that you don't make a mistake of spending too much on customer acquisition or spending anything on acquiring a wrong type of customer.

You can use a number of free or low cost web analytics solutions, including Clicky, KissMetrics, Woopra and Google Analytics.

If you're like most people and don't care if Google has access to your data, you can use Google Analytics. Take advantage of custom reporting and advanced segmentation.

In order to make the most out the traffic you get, and to get more of the traffic that is right for your business, you should create custom reports. They will enable you to know how you're doing against your targets.

To create a custom report, click the “Customization” tab in Analytics and then click the “New Custom Report” tab.

Pick your metrics first (I recommend a Unique Visitors and Conversion Rates and couple that with the geographic dimension)

Tracking Offline Conversions

This step is crucial for local businesses that want to measure performance. Fortunately, this is not as complicated as it sounds. Depending on the type of your campaign, you can use tracking phone numbers, web-only discount codes as well as campaign-specific URLs.

Avinash Kaushik has written extensively on best ways to track offline conversions. I highly recommend this post.

Tying It All Together

Focus on improving the quality of products you sell and/or services you provide. Remember that every Internet marketing campaign works better if you're able to provide a remarkable experience for your customers.

Build your brand and make your customers fall in love with your business. That would make every aspect of your marketing, especially Internet marketing, work better.


Vedran Tomic is a member of SEOBook and founder of Local Ants LLC, a local internet marketing agency.

Productizing Your SEO Business

Oct 11th

If you service clients, it’s quite likely that you’ve faced some of the same pain points I have when trying to design a “product” out of your “service”. The words product and service in our industry tend to be interchangeable as our products are digital products.

Pricing for SEO, or any type of digital marketing service, has been written about quite a few times and there’s never been a real clear answer as to what the sweet spot is for pricing.

I actually do not believe there is a clear or semi-clear answer to pricing but what I do believe is that there is a clear path you can set for your company which makes many aspects of your business easier to automate and easier to manage. I refer to it here as “productizing” the business.

Where to Start

Some products can be priced more easily than others. If you are selling just your time (consulting) then you can do it by hour, obviously. I think the “future” of the SEO consultant has been here for awhile anyways. Many have already evolved into the broader areas of digital marketing like:

  • Technical SEO
  • CRO
  • Competitive Research
  • Analytics
  • Broader Online Marketing Strategy and Execution

There are other areas like paid search, email marketing, and so on but the above covers a good chunk of what many of us having been doing on our own properties for awhile and client sites as well. As more and more of us service clients and perhaps start agencies it’s important to start from the beginning.

This will differ in analysis if you have a much larger agency, but here we are focusing on the more common freelancer and small agency. The steps I would recommend are as follows (this is in relation to pricing/products only, I’m assuming you’ve already identified your market, brand messaging, etc):

  • Determine a sustainable net profit. What do I want to earn as a baseline number?
  • Determine acceptable margins based on desired size of staff and potential cost of contractor work.
  • Determine the required gross revenue needed to achieve your net profit.

Why Do it This Way?

I do it this way because net margin is very important to me. I don’t want to become the Walmart of digital marketing where our margins become paper thin as volume goes up.

Here is an example of what I mean. Consider the following scenario:

I’m leaving my job as a dairy farmer here in rural Rhode Island and I want to make $1,500,000 per year.

So, you’re going to pay a little bit more assuming you are a single member LLC versus a traditional W-2 "employee" (again, keeping it very simple) because of the self-employment tax. Your CPA can go over the different options based on your business set up and such but the base calculations are the same as far as determining the core numbers go.

If you just look at just “earnings” you are missing the bigger picture. What you should want to achieve for short, mid, and long term viability are healthy margins. Here’s an example:

Jack’s SEO Shop had a net income of $1,000,000 dollars in 2011. Their overall sales were $5,000,000. In 2012 they had $1,500,000 in net income with $10,000,000 in sales.

Jill’s SEO Shop had net income of $500,000 dollars in 2011. Their overall sales were $2,000,000. In 2012 they had $1,500,000 in net income with $4,000,000 in sales.

In this case we look at a basic calculation of profit margin (net income/gross sales) and see that:

  • Jacks’ 2011 profit margin was 20%
  • Jack’s 2012 profit margin 15%
  • Jill’s 2011 profit margin 25%
  • Jill’s 2012 profit margin 38% (same net income as Jack)

Certainly 15% on 10 million isn’t something to necessarily sneeze at but I’d much rather be Jill in the current state of web marketing. A 38% profit margin does so much more for your overall viability as a company when you take into account being able to respond to competition, algorithmic changes, increased cost of quality labor, and so on.

In this example a conversation about simply “making” 1.5 million per year is quite misleading. Once we have these numbers figured out we can begin to “design” our “products and/or services” to somewhat fit a pricing model by backdooring it via preferred margins.

Setting Up Your Products

Many folks in the industry have had exposure and direct experience with a number of disciplines. At the very least, a lot of us know enough about “how” to execute a particular type of service without maybe the specific knowledge of how to go in and “push the buttons”.

There’s a tendency to do all types of service but a good way to start is to look at your core competencies and determine what makes the most sense to offer as a product. If you are just starting out you can start this from a blank slate, there’s not a big difference either way.

You will run across a couple different types of costs, direct and indirect. Let’s assume for the sake of simplicity you are a freelancer or just a solo operation. In terms of selling a service you will have 2 core types of cost:

  • Direct (utilization of outside contractors to accomplish a task)
  • Indirect (your time and any other overhead like office costs, insurance, tools, marketing costs)

There’s some debate as to whether you should include the estimated cost of your marketing as part of a per project cost to accurately determine your margins. I say why not, using it only makes it more accurate in terms of hard numbers.

Perhaps you whittled down your offerings to:

  • Technical SEO Audits
  • SEO Competitive Analysis Audits
  • Conversion Optimization
  • Content Marketing

We can assume that you might have the following tools in your toolbelt:

  • Screaming Frog SEO Spider (roughly 158$ per year if you are in the US)
  • Majestic SEO subscription (roughly $588 per year for the Silver plan)
  • Ahrefs subscription (roughly $948 per year for the Pro subscription)
  • Visual Website Optimizer subscription ($588 per year for the Small Business Plan)
  • Raven SEO Tools for competitive research, content marketing strategy and execution, SEO audit work ($1,188 per year)
  • Buzzstream for outreach and additional link prospecting ($1,188 per year)

There are more tools we could add but at a baseline level you would be able to produce quality products with these tools. Total cost is $4,658 per year or $389 (rounded up, per month).

The same formula (annual and monthly amounts) would be used for any other overhead you deem necessary but for the sake of simplicity let’s say you are spending $389 per month on “stuff”.

Knowledge + Tools = Win

Tools are only 1 part of a 2 part equation. Tools without knowledge are useless. There are a variety of costs one could associate with knowledge acquisition:

  • Building your own test sites
  • Going to conferences
  • Participating in online membership sites

The costs for knowledge acquisition can vary from person to person. You might be at a point where all three make sense or at a level where only 1 or 2 make sense. I would recommend looking at these options relative to your skill set and determining the cost, annually, of what makes sense for you. Take that number and just add it to the example cost I gave for tools I recommended earlier.

Breaking Out a Product List

The next step would be to look at each type of service you are offering and productize it. The first 2 areas are more likely to be your time only versus your time + outside contractor help. Conversion Optimization and Content Marketing will probably incur additional costs outside of your time for things like:

  • User testing
  • Content writing
  • Content design
  • Promotion help
  • Programming for interactive content

When setting up products I use this:

  • GI is Gross Income
  • Tax is GI * (whatever your total tax percentage is)
  • NI is Net Income
  • GM is Gross Margin (E2/B2)
  • NM is Net Margin (G2/B2)

In that example I used $150 as my hourly rate and assumed 40 hours for an audit. Now I can play around with the direct cost and price to arrive at the margins I am looking for.

One thing to keep in mind with indirect cost is usually it’s something that can be divided amongst your current projects.

So I might revisit my pricing table from time to time to revamp the indirect cost based on my current client list. In this example I assume no clients are currently onboard and no income for my own properties so this audit eats up all the indirect cost against its margins.

You can design your products however it works for you but I usually try to find some type of baseline that works for me. In the areas I assumed earlier I would try to make sub-products out of each section:

  • Audit based on size and scope of site (total pages, ecommerce, dynamic, etc)
  • Conversion Rate Optimization based on total hours for ongoing work and a few different prices for the initial audit and feedback
  • Content Marketing based on the scale needed broken out into different asset types for easier pricing (videos, interactive content, infographics, whitepapers, and so on
  • SEO Competitive Analysis based on total hours needed for ongoing work and different prices based on the scope of the initial research (or just a one-off overview)

There are so many variables to each service that it is impossible to list them here but the general ideas remain the same. Start with a market and break them out into “things” that can be sold which cover “most” of your target market.

Manage Your Workloads More Efficiently

One of the reasons I mentioned direct cost as being your hourly rate is so you can set a baseline of how many hours you want to work per month to achieve the amount you'd like to earn. Combining what you want to earn with the hours you want to work will help you work out a minimum hourly rate which you can adjust up or down, along with desired revenue, to hit your pricing sweet spot.

Using your hourly rate in conjunction with designing specific products makes it pretty easy to assign hours required to a specific product. When you assign hours to each product you can do a few things that will help in managing your workload:

  • When a new project is being quoted you can quickly gauge whether, based on current projects in process, you have availability for the project
  • If you know ahead of time you are stretched out a bit and need to bring in outside help you can add those additional costs to your proposal and get outside help ready ahead of time
  • If you take on projects and you find your assumed hours are over or under the amount really necessary you can adjust that for future projects

Assigning your required hours to each product you sell will help you manage your workload better and give you more fluidity during peak times. Inevitably there will be periods of peaks and valleys in the demand for your service so if you are able to manage the peaks in a less stressful and more profitable manner the valleys might not be as deep for your financially.

Other Areas Where Productizing Helps

Custom quoting everything that comes through the door is a pain point for me.

Post-quoting you have things like contracts that have to get signed, billing that has to get set up, and task processes that have to get accomplished.

When you have specific products you are selling, it becomes much easier to automate:

  • Proposal templates that get sent out
  • Contract documents
  • Billing setup
  • New client onboarding into a CRM/PM system
  • Tasks that need to be completed and assigned
  • Setting up classes and jobs in Quickbooks to track financials per client or per job

It can be a pretty lengthy process but making your services into products really helps your business in a number of areas

Time For A Content Audit

Oct 2nd
posted in

"Content is king" is one of those “truthy” things some marketers preach. However, in most businesses the bottom line is king, attention is queen, and content can be used as a means to get both, but it depends.

The problem is that content is easy to produce. Machines can produce content. They can tirelessly churn out screeds of content every second. Even if they didn’t, billions of people on the internet are perfectly capable of adding to the monolithic content pile at similar rates.

Low barriers to content production and distribution mean the internet has turned a lot of content into near worthless commodity. Getting and maintaining attention is the tricky part, and once a business has that, then the benefits can flow through to the bottom line.

Some content is valuable, of course. Producing valuable content can earn attention. The content that gets the most attention is typically something for which an audience has a strong need, yet can’t easily get elsewhere, and is published in a place they're likely to see. Or someone they know is likely to see. An article on title tags will likely get buried. An article on the secret code to cracking Google's Hummingbird algorithms will likely crash your server.

Up until the point everyone else has worked out how to crack them, too, of course.

What Content Does The User Want?

Content can become King if the audience bestows favor upon it. Content producers need to figure out what content the audience wants. Perversely, Google have chosen to make this task even more difficult than it was before by withholding keyword data. Between Google’s supposed “privacy” drive, Hummingbird supposedly using semantic analysis, and Penguin/Panda supposedly using engagement metrics, page level and path level optimization are worth focusing upon going forward.

If you haven’t done one for a while, now is probably a good time to take stock and undertake a content audit.

You Have Valuable Historical Information

If you’ve got historical keyword data, archive it now. It will give you an advantage over those who follow you from this point on. Going forward, it will be much more expensive to acquire this data.

Run an audit on your existing content. What content works best? What type of content is it? Video? Text? What’s the content about? What keywords did people use to find it previously? Match content against your historical keyword data.

Here’s a useful list of site and content audit tools and resources.

If keywords can no longer suggest content demand, then how do we know what the visitor wants in terms of content? We must seek to understand the audience at a deeper level. Take a more fuzzy approach.

Watch Activity Signals

Analytics can get pretty addictive and many tools let you watch what visitors do in real time. Monitor engagement levels on your pages. What is a user doing on that page? Are they reading? Contributing? Clicking back and forward looking for something else?

Ensure pages with high engagement are featured prominently in your information architecture. Relegate or fix low-engagement pages. Segment out your content so you know which is the most popular, in terms of landings, and link that information back to ranking reports. This way, you can approximate keywords and stay focused on the content users find most relevant and engaging. Segment out your audience, too. Different visitors respond to different things. Do you know which group favours what? What do older people go for? What do younger people go for? Here are a few ideas on how to segment users.

User behavior is getting increasingly complex. It takes multiple visits to purchase, from multiple channels/influences. Hence the addition of user segmentation allows us to focus on people. (For these exact reasons multi-channel funnels analysis and attribution modeling are so important!)
At the moment in web analytics solutions, people are defined by the first party cookie stored on their browser. Less than ideal, but 100x better then what we had previously. Over-time as we all expand to Universal Analytics perhaps we will have more options to track the same person, after explicitly asking for permission, across browsers, channels and devices

In-Site Search

If Google won’t give you keywords, build your own keyword database. Think about ways you can encourage people to use your in-site search. Watch the content they search for and consume the most. Another way of looking at site search is to provide navigation links that emphasize different keywords terms. For example, you could place these high up on your page, with each offering a different option relating to related keyword terms. Take a note of which keyword terms visitors favour over others.

In the good old days, people dutifully used site navigation at the left, right, or top of a website. But, two websites have fundamentally altered how we navigate the web: Amazon, because the site is so big, sells so many things, and is so complicated that many of us go directly to the site search box on arrival. And Google, which has trained us to show up, type what we want, and hit the search button. Now when people show up at a website, many of them ignore our lovingly crafted navigational elements and jump to the site search box. The increased use of site search as a core navigation method makes it very important to understand the data that site search generates

Distribution

Where does attention flow from? Social media? A mention is great, but if no attention flows over that link to your content, then it might be a misleading metric. Are people sharing your content? What topics and content gets shared the most?

Again, this comes back to understanding the audience, both what they’re talking about and what actions they take as a result. In “Digital Marketing Analytics: Making Sense Of Consumer Data”the authors recommend creating a “learning agenda”. Rather than just looking for mentions and volume of mentions, focus on specific brand or service attributes. Think about the specific questions you want answered by visitors as if they those visitors were sitting in front of you.

For example, how are consumers reacting to prices in your niche? What are their complaints? What do they wish would happen? Are people talking negatively about something? Are they talking positively about something? Who are the new competitors in this space?

Those are pretty rich signals. We can then link this back to content by addressing those issues within our content.

Google Keyword (Not Provided)

Sep 25th

Just a follow up on the prior (not provided) post, as Google has shot the moon since our last post on this. Here's a quick YouTube video.

The above video references the following:

Matt Cutts when secured search first rolled out:

Google software engineer Matt Cutts, who’s been involved with the privacy changes, wouldn’t give an exact figure but told me he estimated even at full roll-out, this would still be in the single-digit percentages of all Google searchers on Google.com.

This Week in Google (TWIG) show 211, where Matt mentioned the inspiration for encrypted search:

we actually started doing encrypted.google.com in 2008 and one of the guys who did a lot of heavy lifting on that, his name is Evan, and he actually reports to me. And we started that after I read Little Brother, and we said "we've got to encrypt the web."

The integration of organic search performance data inside AdWords.

The esteemed AdWords advertiser David Whitaker.

When asked about the recent increase in (not provided), a Google representative stated the following:

We want to provide SSL protection to as many users as we can, in as many regions as we can — we added non-signed-in Chrome omnibox searches earlier this year, and more recently other users who aren’t signed in. We’re going to continue expanding our use of SSL in our services because we believe it’s a good thing for users….

The motivation here is not to drive the ads side — it’s for our search users.

What an excellent time for Google to block paid search referrals as well.

If the move is important for user safety then it should apply to the ads as well.

How To Think About Your Next SEO Project

Sep 23rd

The independent webmaster has taken a beating over the last couple of years. Risk has become harder to spread, labor costs have gone up, outreach has become more difficult and more expensive as Google's webspam team and the growing ranks of the Search Police spread the FUD far and wide.

The web is still a great place to be and still offers incredible opportunity that is largely unavailable, without much more capital intensive risk, in the offline world.

There's still plenty of success to be had in the web-based business model but like any strategy we have to refine it from time to time. I thought I'd share the core processes I go through when starting a new site.

Look for Signal, Look Past the Noise

Online marketers, celebrities, and brands pretty much power the Twittersphere and the 140 character limit invariably leads to statements full of bluster (and shallowness) like:

  • Links are dead
  • Forget links get social likes, +1's, RT's, and so on
  • Guest posting is dead
  • Infographics are dead
  • SEO is dead

None of that is true but when folks try to become prognosticators they will just keep saying the same thing over and over, with some slight re-framing, until they finally get it right.

All you have to do is look at the really ridiculous statements over the years about how ranking "doesn't matter". These statements have gone back to at least 2006-ish, craziness.

Or look at the past couple years where we get "social shares are the new link" shoved down our throats despite the data that flies in the face of that statement, at least as it pertains to organic search growth.

pinnochio

Yet, years later both of these "industry trends" would have cost you significant amounts of revenue and search share. We don't have to debate the spam links vs non-spam links here either. No one here is advocating for you to build crappy links and you don't need to.

Establishing Your Portfolio

It's quite likely, as an independent webmaster, that you will have sites that serve different purposes. I have sites that:

  • are actively being built into online brands (or trying at least :D )
  • exist as pure, longer-standing SEO plays that are cash cows used to fund more sustainable long-term projects
  • are built to initially live off of paid traffic, direct outreach, and/or social campaigns with organic search as a tertiary method of traffic acquisition
  • exist solely to test new ideas or new products before building an actual site/brand

I also work a select type of client. One thing I found helpful was to set up a spreadsheet with some very basic information to help me keep track of things at a 10,000 foot view.

So I have a column for:

  • Domain
  • Purpose Tag (one of the areas I described above)
  • Net Monthly Revenue (multiple columns)
  • Rolling 12 month Net Revenue
  • Same monthly/rolling numbers for costs

From there, I do a quick chart to show what areas most of the revenue is coming from and where the investment is going. Over time, I try to make sure the online brand area (where we are getting traffic and revenue from a healthly mix of multiple sources) is outpacing the pure SEO plays in both areas and we try to shy away from making too many expensive pure SEO plays where no mid-long term "brandability" exists.

We also like to see growth in client areas as well, but only for the right kind of client. The wrong kind of client can have a really destructive effect on a small team.

Staying small, lean, and profitable are also big keys to this strategy. If you are up against it on debt and overhead you will probably be less likely to make the proper decisions for your long-term viability on the 'net.

Considerations When Starting a New Site

I think most small teams or individual publishers can probably handle 2-3 branded sites at a time (stipulating that a branded site is one where there are just about all elements of online marketing involved). The first step I take is to determine what bucket the site will go in.

A testing site is easy enough to decide on. I might have an idea for a new product so I'll just throw up a small Wordpress site, a landing page, and test it out via PPC. Part of the initial research here is to determine whether there is any existing "search" demand or if you'll be tasked with creating demand on your own.

You can certainly build an online product that will be driven, initially, mostly by offline demand if you have the right networking in place. For the most part we try to stick to stuff where there is some initial demand online as the offline networking component tends to involve, in my experience, a lot more initial work, more stakeholders, etc.

When we look at a "product" we consider the following as "stuff" we could sell:

  • knowledge
  • physical product
  • digital products

Certainly a site can have any combination of those elements but generally those are the three basic types of things we'd consider selling. From there we would want to figure out:

  • brand name and domain (I prefer one or two word domains here, keyword not required)
  • search volume estimates and the length of the tail for each core keyword
  • if conversations are taking place across the web for the broader topic or lateral topics where we can insert ourselves/product
  • if our product can be a niche of an already successful, broader product offering
  • does the product have a reasonable chance of success in the social media realm
  • if we can make it better than what exists now

Example of a Product Idea

So one example, as I also dabble in real estate a bit, that I'll give is a CRM/PM solution for real estate investors. Most of the products out there aren't what I would consider "good". Many of the solutions are either just not very good or require some hook into a complex solution like Microsoft Dynamics CRM.

There's demand for the product on the web and there's a lot that could be done, more elegantly, with technologies that are available today to help connect all the things that go into an investment decision and investment management.

This is something I'm kicking around and it's a good example of our strategy of trying to find a successful, broad market where opportunity exists for niches to be served in a more direct, elegant manner.

We could do 2 of 3 product types here, but would likely start with just the online product itself and maybe hang training or courses off of it later.

You Need a Product

product

If you want to stick around online I believe you need at least 1 product and brand that can sustain the up and down nature of search cycles. You could argue that client work is your product and I'd buy that.

However, I think client work is still an area where you are more beholden to the decisions of others, in a more abrupt fashion (internal client spend decisions, taking things in-house, etc), than you are if you have your own product or service especially at the price points charged to clients.

I could also make the case that if you are selling direct to consumers you are beholden to them as well. Yet, I think the risk is better spread out over an SaaS model, subscription model, or direct product model than it is selling to either a handful of large clients or handfuls of large clients that require a large team of people and all that goes into the management of a team like that.

Opportunity Abounds

There still is a ton of opportunity on the web, there is no doubt about that. The practice of finding a broad market and picking a niche in there has worked out well for us in the last year or so.

In some areas we start off with no connections at all. So in areas where we are behind the 8 ball on relationships we will often hire writers from boards like ProBlogger.Net where will we specifically ask for folks who are in that industry with an existing site and active social following to write for us.

We will also ask them to promote what they write for us on their social channels and site while hooking their authorship profile into the posts they do for us. This helps us, in certain industries anyway, really grow an audience for short money and establish relationships with established, trusted people in the space.

Sell Something

Finding that balance between passion and monetary potential is difficult and there's often some level of tradeoff. If you use the items I listed earlier as a guide to determine how to move forward with an idea, or if moving forward even makes sense for the idea, then I think you'll be starting off in a solid position.

The last couple of years have been really turbulent but that also has created more opportunities in different areas and while it's nice to throw out the word "diversify" it's also good to take a more boots on the ground approach than a theoretical one.

The core hallmarks of a traditional SEO campaign are still largely the same but there's no reason why you can't stick around and take advantage of these opportunities, especially with all the experience you have in multiple areas of online marketing from being an independent webmaster in the golden age of SEO.

Design Thinking

Sep 16th
posted in

One of the problems with analysing data is the potential to get trapped in the past, when we could be imagining the future. Past performance can be no indication of future success, especially when it comes to Google’s shifting whims.

We see problems, we devise a solution. But projecting forward by measuring the past, and coming up with “the best solution” may lead to missing some obvious opportunities.

Design Thinking

In 1972, psychologist, architect and design researcher Bryan Lawson created an empirical study to understand the difference between problem-based solvers and solution-based solvers. He took two groups of students – final year students in architecture and post-graduate science students – and asked them to create one-story structures from a set of colored blocks. The perimeter of the building was to optimize either the red or the blue color, however, there were unspecified rules governing the placement and relationship of some of the blocks.
Lawson found that:

The scientists adopted a technique of trying out a series of designs which used as many different blocks and combinations of blocks as possible as quickly as possible. Thus they tried to maximize the information available to them about the allowed combinations. If they could discover the rule governing which combinations of blocks were allowed they could then search for an arrangement which would optimize the required color around the design. By contrast, the architects selected their blocks in order to achieve the appropriately colored perimeter. If this proved not to be an acceptable combination, then the next most favorably colored block combination would be substituted and so on until an acceptable solution was discovered.

Nigel Cross concludes from Lawson's studies that "scientific problem solving is done by analysis, while designers problem solve through synthesis”

Design thinking tends to start with the solution, rather than the problem. A lot of problem based-thinking focuses on finding the one correct solution to a problem, whereas design thinking tends to offer a variety of solutions around a common theme. It’s a different mindset.

One of the criticisms of Google, made by Google’s former design leader Douglas Bowman, was that Google were too data centric in their decision making:

When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data...that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions…

There’s nothing wrong with being data-driven, of course. It’s essential. However, if companies only think in those terms, then they may be missing opportunities. If we imagine “what could be”, rather than looking at “what was”, opportunities present themselves. Google realise this, too, which is why they have Google X, a division devoted to imagining the future.

What search terms might people use that don’t necessarily show up on keyword mining tools? What search terms will people use six months from now in our vertical? Will customers contact us more often if we target them this way, rather than that way? Does our copy connect with our customers, of just search engines? Given Google is withholding more search referral data, which is making it harder to target keywords, adding some design thinking to the mix, if you don’t already, might prove useful.

Tools For Design Thinking

In the book, Designing For Growth, authors Jeanne Liedtka and Tim Ogilvie outline some tools for thinking about opportunities and business in ways that aren’t data-driven. One famous proponent of the intuitive, design-led approach was, of course, Steve Jobs.

It's really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them

The iphone or iPad couldn’t have been designed by looking solely at the past. They mostly came about because Jobs had an innate understanding of what people wanted. He was proven right by the resulting sales volume.

Design starts with empathy. It forces you to put yourself in the customers shoes. It means identifying real people with real problems.

In order to do this, we need to put past data aside and watch people, listen to people, and talk with people. The simple act of doing this is a rich source of keyword and business ideas because people often frame a problem in ways you may not expect.

For example, a lot of people see stopping smoking as a goal-setting issue, like a fitness regime, rather than a medical issue. Advertising copy based around medical terminology and keywords might not work as well as copy oriented around goal setting and achieving physical fitness. This shift in the frame of reference certainly conjures up an entirely different world of ad copy, and possibly keywords, too. That different frame might be difficult to determine from analytics and keyword trends alone, but might be relatively easy to spot simply by talking to potential customers.

Four Questions

Designing For Growth is worth a read if you’re feeling bogged down in data and looking for new ways to tackle problems and develop new opportunities. I don’t think there’s anything particularly new in it, and it can come across as "the shiny new buzzword" at times, but the fundamental ideas are strong. I think there is value in applying some of these ideas directly to current SEO issues.

Designing For Growth recommends asking the following questions.

What is?

What is the current reality? What is the problem your customers are trying to solve? Xerox solved a problem customers didn’t even know that had when Xerox invented the fax machine. Same goes for the Polaroid camera. And the microwave oven. Customers probably couldn’t describe those things until they saw and understood them, but the problem would have been evident had someone looked closely at the problems they faced i.e. people really wanted faster, easier ways of completing common tasks.

What do your customers most dislike about the current state of affairs? About your industry? How often do you ask them?

One way of representing this information is with a flowchart. Map the current user experience from when they have a problem, to imagining keywords, to searching, to seeing the results, to clicking on one of those results, to finding your site, interacting to your site, to taking desired action. Could any of the results or steps be better?

Usability tests use the same method. It’s good to watch actual customers as they do this, if possible. Conduct a few interviews. Ask questions. Listen to the language people use. We can glean some of this information from data mining, but there’s a lot more we can get by direct observation, especially when people don’t click on something, as non-activity seldom registers in a meaningful way in analytics.

What if?

What would “something better” look like?

Rather than think in terms of what is practical and the constraints that might prevent you from doing something, imagine what an ideal solution would look like if it weren’t for those practicalities and constraints.

Perhaps draw pictures. Make mock-ups. Tell a story. Anything that fires the imagination. Use emotion. Intuition. Feeling. Just going through such a process will lead to making connections that are difficult to make by staring at a spreadsheet.

A lot of usability testers create personas. These are fictional characters based on real or potential customers and are used try to gain an understanding of what they might search for, what problems they are trying to solve, and what they expect to see on our site. Is this persona a busy person? Well educated? Do they use the internet a lot? Are they buying for themselves, or on behalf of others? Do they tend to react emotionally, or are they logical? What incentives would this persona respond to?

Personas tend to work best when they’re based on actual people. Watch and observe. Read up on relevant case studies. Trawl back through your emails from customers. Make use of story-boards to capture their potential actions and thoughts. Stories are great ways to understand motivations and thoughts.

What are those things your competition does, and how could they be better? What would those things look like in the best possible world, a world free of constraints?

What wows?

“What wows” is especially important for social media and SEO going forward.

Consider Matt Cutts statement about frogs:

Those other sites are not bringing additional value. While they’re not duplicates they bring nothing new to the table. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with what these people have done, but they should not expect this type of content to rank.
Google would seek to detect that there is no real differentiation between these results and show only one of them so we could offer users different types of sites in the other search results

Cutts talks about the creation of new value. If one site is saying pretty much the same as another site, then those sites may not be duplicates, but one is not adding much in the way of value, either. The new site may be relegated simply for being “too samey”.

It's the opposite of the Zygna path:

"I don't fucking want innovation," an anonymous ex-employee recalls Pincus saying in 2010, according to the SF Weekly. "You're not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers."

Generally speaking, up-and-coming sites should focus on wowing their audience with added depth and/or a new perspective. This, in turn, means having something worth remarking upon, which then attracts mentions across social media, and generates more links.

Is this certain to happen? Nothing is certain as far as Google is concerned. They could still bury you on a whim, but wowing an audience is a better bet than simply imitating long-established players using similar content and link structures. At some point, those long-established players had to wow their audience to get the attention and rankings they enjoy today. They did something remarkably different at some point. Instead of digging the same hole deeper, dig a new hole.

In SEO, change tends to be experimental. It’s iterative. We’re not quite sure what works ahead of time, and no amount of measuring the past tells us all we want to know, but we try a few things and see what works. If a site is not ranking well, we try something else, until it does.

Which leads us to….

What works?

Do searchers go for it? Do they do that thing we want them to do, which is click on an ad, or sign up, or buy something?

SEOs are pretty accomplished at this step. Experimentation in areas that are difficult to quantify - the algorithms - have been an intrinsic part of SEO.

The tricky part is not all things work the same everywhere & much like modern health pathologies, Google has clever delays in their algorithms:

Many modern public health pathologies – obesity, substance abuse, smoking – share a common trait: the people affected by them are failing to manage something whose cause and effect are separated by a huge amount of time and space. If every drag on a cigarette brought up a tumour, it would be much harder to start smoking and much easier to quit.

One site's rankings are more stable because another person can't get around the sandbox or their links get them penalized. The same strategy and those same links might work great for another site.

Changes in user behavior are more directly & immediately measurable than SEO.

Consider using change experiments as an opportunity to open up a conversation with potential users. “Do you like our changes? Tell us”. Perhaps use a prompt asking people to initiate a chat, or participate on a poll. Engagement that has many benefits. It will likely prevent a fast click back, you get to see the words people use and how they frame their problems, and you learn more about them. You become more responsive and empathetic sympathetic to their needs.

Beyond Design Thinking

There’s more detail to design thinking, but, really, it’s mostly just common sense. Another framework to add, especially if you feel you’re getting stuck in faceless data.

Design thinking is not a panacea. It is a process, just as Six Sigma is a process. Both have their place in the modern enterprise. The quest for efficiency hasn't gone away and in fact, in our economically straitened times, it's sensible to search for ever more rigorous savings anywhere you can

What's best about it, I feel, is this type of thinking helps break strategy and data problems down and give it a human face.

In this world, designers can continue to create extraordinary value. They are the people who have, or could have, the laterality needed to solve problems, the sensing skills needed to hear what the world wants, and the databases required to build for the long haul and the big trajectories. Designers can be definers, making the world more intelligible, more habitable

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